Avoid Immigration Scams

Yesterday USCIS released yet another warning on “misleading” websites and the fees they charge for preparing immigration forms and applications:

In recent weeks, USCIS has received a large number of applications prepared by an online business that charges users to complete their USCIS forms. In most cases, the charge for preparing an application is the same as the USCIS filing fee. When applicants pay these businesses online using an electronic check, the applicant is only paying for the service provided to prepare the application, and not the actual USCIS filing fee. As a result, applicants are attaching a copy of a cashed electronic check when mailing their applications to USCIS. Because the applicant has not paid the USCIS filing fee, USCIS cannot process these applications and must return them to the applicant.

Clearly, USCIS knows about this website…but isn’t planning to tell you. USCIS even worded their alert carefully to avoid calling such practice fraud or scam. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of confused. So if an online business intentionally charges the same amount for preparing an immigration form as the USCIS filing fee, and as a result, a large number of its customers mistakenly think they are paying the government rather than the business, does USCIS consider it a scam or not? What about selling free USCIS forms for a profit?

Maybe USCIS is worried about getting themselves into legal trouble by disclosing these companies’ names; maybe they don’t think they are in a position to do anything — USCIS is not a law enforcement agency, after all. But I still hope they would do a bit more in the future, other than relying on public warnings. The intended audience here is the immigrant community which consists, obviously, immigrants. Many of them are new to America, don’t know much about immigration, and aren’t fluent in English. This is a group that is hard to reach, but in the mean time, the most vulnerable and easiest target for scammers.

In recent years we’ve seen increased efforts from USCIS, DOS, DOJ and other government agencies to fight immigration scams. There are also broader media coverage (see BBB, Union Tribune and the Beacon) and more ways for consumers to report fraudulent activities (see FTC Complaint Center and eConsumer.gov). Most recently the National Initiative to Combat Immigration Services Scams also kicked off. Let’s hope all the hard work will soon pay off.

Update 9/19/2011: USCIS posted another blog entry on this subject, again without releasing any names.

Update 9/23/2011: Illinois Attorney General has filed a law suit against a Chicago man for immigration fraud:

The lawsuit alleges Lekarauskas deceptively marketed and represented his website, www.USAimmigrationsupport.com, as an official government site. The website features a logo that closely mimics a federal seal next to the title “United States Immigration Organization,” and attempts to make consumers believe it is an official government site where they can obtain passports, visa and citizenship applications.

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